I think we can all agree that Christmas is the best time of the year, hands down. From all the presents, the catchy carols, and time with family, there are so many parts of Christmas that make it so special. One of these many delightful aspects are the classic Christmas treats that we all know and love. Christmas is a time of indulgence, and is it really the holidays if you can’t suck on a candy cane, sip on hot cocoa, or admire the engineering wizardry of gingerbread houses? Although everyone is well acquainted with quintessential Christmas treats, have you ever wondered where they come from? Well that's where I come in, and today we’ll be going over the history of these three iconic Christmas sweets. 

Candy Canes

With their red and white colors and peppermint taste, nothing screams Christmas more than candy canes. Peppermint is a practically inescapable flavor during the holidays, and is injected into every sweet like peppermint bark, peppermint lattes, cookies, and much more. A cross between spearmint and water mint, peppermint has seen a medical use since the beginning of western civilization as we know it. Ancient Egyptian medical records trace it all the way back to 1500 BC, and it is believed to originate in Africa or the Mediterranean. It got its name from an ancient Greek myth where Hades turned his mistress Minthe into a sweet plant so others may experience her sweet love. Later, the Romans would use peppermint during celebrations as flavoring for lavish feasts, decoration on festive tables, and they would even weave them into crowns to be worn on festive occasions. Peppermints' rise as a holiday flavor is generally unknown, but its Roman celebratory use may have morphed into the peppermint Christmas frenzy we know today.

Much later, the candy cane emerged in Germany during the 17th century, but its exact origin is unknown. One tale says that a choirmaster gave his young singers sugar sticks to keep them quiet during church, but bent them into a shepherd's crook to be a symbol fit for a Christian setting. On the other (more boring) hand, the sugar sticks were probably bent so Germans could hang them on trees or other ledges during the holidays. The candy was introduced to the US in 1847 by a Swedish German immigrant, August Imgard, who decorated a tree with the treat. This new sweet was first solely white, but it gained its red and white swirl when it was mass produced and advertisements spread these distinctively Christmas colors. This history from Egypt to now transformed the humble mint plant into the Christmas staple that is the classic candy cane.

Gingerbread Houses

Nothing is more exciting than building a house fully made of candy inhabited by tiny cookie people, but how did this tradition of gingerbread engineering emerge? The defining flavoring, ginger, originates from China, and it was spread to Europe via the silk road. Ginger was a popular spice for flavoring and herbal remedies, and by the late Middle Ages Europe had developed their own gingerbread recipe. Gingerbread cookies shaped like royals and animals decorated with gold were popular confections in European fairs. These human shaped cookies are the original, much more elaborate, form of the contemporary gingerbread men. These fairs came to be known as “Gingerbread Fairs”, and the shape of the cookies would change based on the season. This festive use slowly morphed into gingerbread’s Christmas association we know today.

An evolution of these cookies, the gingerbread house is believed to originate in Germany during the 16th century, and these elaborate structures became a Christmas centerpiece. This holiday tradition further gained popularity with the creation of the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. The origin of this tale is uncertain, but in the 1960s the German writer Hans Trixler claimed to discover its basis. He claimed that the fairy tale was based on two sibling bakers who desperately wanted the gingerbread recipe of another baker. Once this baker refused their advances, the siblings claimed she was a witch leading to her having to flee into the woods. The siblings then tracked her secluded cottage down, murdered her, and burnt it to the ground. This “truth” behind the fairytale was actually as fictional as the original Grimm Brothers story. Trixler made this whole story up, but nonetheless, this tale only further popularized the gingerbread house, and cemented its status as a Christmas classic.

Hot Chocolate

Last, but certainly not least, is everyone’s favorite drink to escape the winter chills, hot chocolate. This fireside treat stretches back thousands of years, and its origins can be found in ancient Mayan civilization. The Mayans utilized the cacao tree for a multitude of functions, and one of these uses was in the drink that became hot chocolate. This chocolate drink was named “xocolātl” which translates to “dirty water”, and consisted of water, cocoa, chilies, and more savory spices. This drink was completely different from the hot cocoa we know today since it had a bitter, savory taste, and was served cold. Later, the Aztecs added honey to make it a little sweeter, and this was the beverage that the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, brought to the Spanish court in the 16th century.

In order to align with Europe’s sweeter taste buds, the Spaniards added sugar, vanilla, other ingredients, and heated it as well. By the 17th century hot chocolate had spread around Europe, and it became a drink enjoyed by the elites for relaxation and special occasions. Chocolate houses sprung up all over England, and these were basically Starbucks that only made hot cocoa, aka. heaven on earth. During this era, hot cocoa was a costly beverage fit for the elites, and it could only be purchased from these fancy coffee houses. That all changed when the 19th century Industrial Revolution made hot cocoa affordable for the general public through the rise of cheap, mass factory production. The invention of instant hot cocoa by Swiss Miss in the 1960s only further spread this drink to the ever-present nature it is today. Its warming effect and history as a luxurious, celebratory drink made it the perfect treat for a wintery holiday like Christmas, and modern culture has morphed it into a holiday staple.

 There’s the history behind some of the most classic Christmas treats! I hope this adds some fun knowledge to your holiday season, and gives some insight into the treats that make Christmas so merry.